May 11, 2007 5:31 AM |
[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Right Stuff's Flash Hiders and Battle Tycoon, released for the PC Engine in 1993 and the Super Famicom in 1995, respectively.]
Many will snort derisively at the idea of fighting games having storylines. The fighter, they will tell you, has always been about competition, about facing another human in matches free of plot or computer-controlled opponents. And they’re right. Modern fighters typically offer some story mode or a similar one-player attraction, but they’ve never really needed them. In fact, the first genre offerings to follow Street Fighter II’s 1991 debut had no real narratives. Fighting games had characters, and, if you were lucky, endings. That was all.
It wasn’t until 1993 that a developer called Right Stuff bothered to change things. They’d made a name by dealing in PC Engine games like Emerald Dragon, Fang of Alnam, and other RPGs heavy on cinematic cutscenes and anime archetypes. Why then, someone at Right Stuff surely asked, couldn’t a fighting game have the same focus? And so Flash Hiders emerged.
Much like the typical CD-based RPG of its day, Flash Hiders begins with a lengthy animated intro, one that finds an easily annoyed martial artist named Bang Bipot and a temperamental sorceress named Tiria Rossette on a trek across a half-medieval, half-futuristic world. In the game’s main “Scenario” mode, the not-quite-a-couple runs across and all but adopts Erue, an emotionally fragile young man somehow connected to an assortment of thugs, bounty hunters, and stranger things.
As a manga-style yarn that haphazardly meshes fantasy and science fiction tropes, Flash Hiders’ story isn’t particularly remarkable. It doesn’t help that the presentation’s uneven: some sequences are just talking heads or static images without even some two-frame lip flap thrown in for dramatic illusion’s sake. And while there’s a bit of comic timing in the characters’ constant bickering, it’s rarely imaginative. An example: the first scripted fight results after Harman, a curvaceous and vain female mercenary, angrily kicks over a restaurant table when Erue calls her “Oba-san” (“Grandma”), leaving Bang to avenge his ruined meal. If you’ve seen any given sword-and-sorcery anime comedy, you’ve seen Flash Hiders.
Yet in 1993, it was revolutionary for a fighter to develop any story at all, and Flash Hiders borrowed more than cutscenes from Right Stuff’s RPG experience. Before each match, characters can buy and equip different items, and then selectively boost their defense, attack power, and speed. Simple as this may be, the selective stat raises add a lot to the fighting template, and actually allow far more freedom of character development than the typical 16-bit Japanese RPG.
Though the Scenario storyline restricts players to controlling Bang, the “Advance” mode takes the rest of the main characters down their own goofy plot threads. In testament to Right Stuff's target audience, both modes automatically have your chosen character controlled by AI; you’ve got to fiddle with the options before the game lets you play instead of watch.
And watching isn’t all that fun. The animated intermissions may be colorful (and a bit too glossy), but the battles have a washed-out look, with limited animation and muted palettes. Still, the soundtrack isn’t bad, and Right Stuff spent considerable sums on a voice cast that includes then-famous anime actors like Kumiko Watanabe, Konami Yoshida, and the revered Megumi Hayashibara, who could practically sell a game on her own back in 1993.
And beneath all of the shiny, huge-eyed vixens and shrill battle cries, there’s a surprisingly detailed fighting game. The controls are precise, and the cast of characters is quite balanced for a fighter that was never designed for fierce competition. There's a intriguing mix in the three classes of fighter: the magicians specialize in projectiles, the cyborgs are slow and powerful, and the remaining warriors, as members of some "were" race, morph into wolves, tigers, and other predators during their special moves.
The combatants even use dashes and guard canceling, now-standard techniques that were strikingly uncommon in the time of Mortal Kombat. Perhaps that's why Flash Hiders, unlike many fighters of its era, doesn’t feel wholly outdated when matched against the current complexities of Guilty Gear X2 #Reload or Street Fighter III: Third Strike.
In the mid-‘90s, however, Flash Hiders didn’t quite catch on. Every popular fighting game of the era started in the arcades, and a PC Engine CD release didn’t command the same attention, not when the PCE’s stock two-button controller simplified Flash Hiders’ four-button mechanics. The game never even showed in the West. The U.S. TurboDuo was one-tenth as successful as its Japanese incarnation, and if NEC couldn’t be bothered to release Street Fighter II on their American system, they couldn’t be bothered with Flash Hiders.
Flash Hiders EX Plus Lesbian
Right Stuff took another chance on its fighting venture in 1995, with Battle Tycoon: Flash Hiders SFX for the Super Famicom. The alleged sequel loses the original’s Scenario mode and all of its cinematic sequences, though the in-game fighters at least animate better. The Advance mode, meanwhile, is substantially improved in Battle Tycoon, in which players can roam freely from one city location to another, picking fights, upgrading characters, and even visiting a coliseum to bet on all-AI showdowns.
Battle Tycoon also lost four of Flash Hiders’ duller fighters, replacing them with the cyborg Guston Slade, Bang’s father Jail Lance, and a swordswoman named Patchet Vayne. Perhaps Battle Tycoon’s only real point of invention, Patchet stands as one of the fighting genre’s first lesbian and/or bisexual characters. (Or the first at all, if one ignores Variable Geo, and one should.) Naturally, Patchet’s also a complete stereotype: muscular, hedonistic, and not particularly bright, she spends most of her Advance-mode story lusting after the other female fighters. One of her moves makes her resemble a metal-skinned wolf, but I doubt that’s tied to her sexual proclivities.
Right but largely irrelevant stuff
Battle Tycoon made even fewer waves that Flash Hiders did, and for the same reasons: it wasn’t an arcade game, the market in 1995 was already saturated with fighters that were, and no one cared to translate a dated-looking fighter for North America.
Right Stuff gave up on the would-be franchise soon after, turning instead to a doomed sequel to their Alnam RPG. The company didn’t survive the decade, and their demise killed chances for a world where Flash Hiders eventually would be a hit, a world where fans would hold tournaments in its name and the lonelier devotees would buy suggestively posed statues depicting Harman and Patchet instead of Cammy and Mai Shiranui.
Yet if Flash Hiders didn't get far, its ideas did. Modern fighters such as Soul Calibur have elaborate weapon-upgrading system, while the likes of Guilty Gear, Melty Blood, and Tech Romancer have engaging story modes. It’s not clear if Namco, Capcom, and other developers were inspired by Flash Hiders or if they merely followed a natural evolutionary path, but even if Right Stuff’s little experiment had no far-reaching influence, its spirit lives on in any fighter that’s fun to play solo.
And, of course, any game with a metallic lesbian werewolf.
[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]
Categories: Column: Might Have Been